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Why stress affects horses' stomachs!

Kristina Gehrdau-Schröder


5 Min. Lesezeit

The English proverb "Some of my best friends never say a word to me" applies perfectly to the relationship between horse and human. And it is precisely this that has a special appeal for many horse people. You don't talk to each other, but somehow you speak the same language.

Disclaimer: The following text has been translated from German. It is important to note that if you have any inquiries regarding the feeding and keeping of your horse, it is always recommended to consult your veterinarian first.

We riders think we know what our four-legged partner wants from us when he lovingly nudges us in the side, what his favourite food is or why he prefers to be worked in the show jumping arena instead of being ridden in the dressage arena. But do we really always know whether our horses are doing well and whether they are comfortable or perhaps stressed?

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When I think about my horse, I think I know what is stressing him out. For example, irregular feeding times, general restlessness at peak times in the stable or a full indoor arena. I can immediately think of how my horse behaves when he is stressed. It flaps its tail more, doesn't eat, behaves irritably towards its box neighbours and I can feel a general tension and increased irritability.

Different symptoms of stress

Just like us humans, stress affects horses' stomachs, as a stressed horse's organism behaves in a similar way to that of a horse that is on the run. In order to better supply the muscles in such situations, less blood is made available to the digestive system, which slows down the digestive process. However, as the horse produces stomach acid around the clock, this now attacks the stomach lining and therefore stomach ulcers often result from constant stress.

But are there also factors that stress our horse that we may not even be aware of, let alone realise that they are stressing our horse?

Stress is not always recognisable at first glance, as not every horse shows clear symptoms, such as moult or laminitis. The stress factors can have very different origins. Stress is often a result of the way the horse is kept, but training, general excessive demands or increased sensitivity on the part of the horse can also trigger stress.

How do I recognise whether my horse is stressed?

Horses react very differently to stress. While one horse goes on the attack, another horse may freeze or flee in the same situation. Stress is usually easier to recognise during work, for example under saddle or in hand, than when the horse is in the stable or in the pasture.

On the one hand, this is because we have the horse with us and can immediately recognise a change in character: the horse is tense and clamped, has a tight mouth and raised eyes, is no longer easy to ride or is constantly electrified, flaps its tail and is on the verge of exploding at every opportunity.

On the other hand, it takes longer and closer observation to determine whether the horse is stressed by its environment and attitude, as horses do not always express this clearly and often change their behaviour when the owner approaches.

As the owner of a horse with a gastric ulcer, you often hear and read that the stress factors need to be eliminated. However, it becomes problematic if you don't know what the triggers are that are stressing the horse.

You should therefore take the time to find out why the horse is under stress. The fact that the horse is stressed by its box neighbour is usually quickly noticed when it expresses clear defensive behaviour.

It can be worth trying out and testing what works best for the horse, but you shouldn't move from stable to stable only to realise after the fifth change of stable in a year that nothing has changed.

Many owners try to keep their horses as natural and stress-free as possible to prevent stomach ulcers, especially if there is a history of stress. In such cases, the decision is often made in favour of open stabling in groups. But what do you do if nothing changes in the horse's condition or it even gets worse?

Stabling has a major influence on the perception of stress

For example, keeping a horse in an open stable can cause it even more stress if it cannot cope with the hierarchy. This can affect both low-ranking and high-ranking horses.

We should therefore also give our horse time to arrive, settle in and adjust to new situations. We are often the ones who stress our horses through our behaviour and certain ideas. Our ideas of a perfect environment for our horse do not always correspond to those of our horses.

There are horses that prefer to be kept in a box rather than an open stable or prefer to be alone in a paddock rather than in a group.

Transferring stress

When we are stressed, our horses usually are too. However, it is often unclear whose stress is the cause of the other horse's stress. What is clear, however, is that stress is transferred both from horse to human and from human to horse.

For example, tense riders usually go hand in hand with horses that are stuck and do not let go. And this is often a vicious circle, as the rider of a stressed horse becomes more and more tense and thus transfers the tension to the horse, which is even more stressed as a result.

We should therefore always remember that we need to relax when dealing with our horses, not take our everyday stress into the stable and sometimes lower our expectations of our horses in order to have a relaxed, relaxed horse again, because then the communication between rider and horse will work again.

More on the topic

Are you interested in why horses tend to be stressed and what you can do to protect them from stressful situations? Read about the 5 freedoms for analysing stress triggers on our overview page on the subject of stress.

Equine 74 Gastric

The long-term solution

Buffers the excess acid in the horse's stomach instead of blocking it.

Equine 74 Stomach Calm Relax

In case of acute stress

Supports the nervous horse stomach in stressful situations.